The first pastor was annoyed and impatient during Miriam’s visit. He had a large and active church, and had thought he was making an appointment to talk to a member about some church problem. When she asked for the appointment, Miriam had said, “It’s about a problem and what the church can do about it.” The secretary had written “church problem” in the little text field on her computer marked “Reason for Appointment” and that was that.
“I was reading in my Bible,” said Miriam, “and I came to a story. It says here that Jesus fed 5,000 people.”
“It’s good to read your Bible,” said the pastor in a neutral tone of voice. He claimed to want people to study their Bibles. In fact, he thought the ones that did it on their own, apart from church curriculum, came up with too many weird ideas. The girl in front of him (what had possessed the secretary to give him an appointment with a teenager?) looked like weird ideas, probably wild ones, were very likely. She had several extra piercings in her ears, one in her lip, and a tattoo on her shoulder that he couldn’t identify, but which gave him the feeling that it was unchristian. She was considered pretty conservative by her crowd at school, but the pastor was unacquainted with her crowd.
Copyright © 2014
Henry E. Neufeld
“Yes,” said Maria. “It’s been helping me in my study of English literature, but that’s not what I’m here about.”
The pastor was a little annoyed. Literature? Then why’s she seeing me? he thought. But he pasted a questioning look on his face.
Encouraged by this, Miriam continued. “But in the middle of the story, Jesus tells the disciples to give the people something to eat. Now either he was screwing with their heads, or he thought they should have been able to do something about it, if they just wanted to badly enough. Maybe he thought they should have planned ahead to bring enough food. I don’t know.
“But he says it, ‘You give them something to eat’.”
“Jesus could perform a miracle and feed all those people. We can’t. It would take resources.”
“Yes,” said Miriam. “I can see that. You think Jesus was screwing with their heads.” The pastor couldn’t control the look of distaste that crossed his face. Using the phrase “screwing with their heads” in connection with Jesus just didn’t sound properly respectful. Miriam continued, “I don’t think Jesus was screwing with their heads. I think he wanted them to think about things like that. I think he wanted them to be ready to feed people.”
“You’re not a member of our church, are you?”
Miriam paused and looked puzzled at this apparent non sequitur. (She knew what a non sequitur was. She’d looked it up in English class.) “No,” she said. “I’m not.”
“Where do you go to church?”
“I don’t. My parents aren’t church people.”
“Well, perhaps you should. Then we could teach you how to understand these difficult passages of scripture. Then you could take these questions to your pastor.” He emphasized the pronoun slightly. On the one hand, he wanted to bring in new members. On the other, he thought this one was a troublemaker, and perhaps someone else could be her pastor. He wasn’t sure how old she was. He guessed 16 or so.
“I don’t see what’s so difficult about it. It seems that Jesus doesn’t like people going hungry. It seems like he told his disciples to feed them. When they didn’t, he made it happen. I understand it’s just a story, but stories have meaning too.”
“Well, you can’t take these stories too literally.”
“I’m not taking it literally. I don’t believe that Jesus actually miraculously fed 5,000 people. I don’t believe in that sort of miracle. I believe in the story. ‘You give them something to eat.’ I thought you would too.”
“I would really like to have a chance to teach you some more about the Bible,” lied the pastor. In fact, he really hoped someone else would deal with this girl. “For example, Jesus really did feed 5,000 people. It happened! But right now I don’t have the time. I have another appointment coming up.”
Miriam knew he was lying. She knew how to make appointments and had specifically asked for half an hour. “So,” she said, “you do believe in the miracle, but not in the story.” She jumped up and was gone in a moment.
The second pastor was a known activist. She thought he was more likely to be sympathetic. She’d had some idea that people might not like the fact that she didn’t believe the miracles. Didn’t, and couldn’t. She just couldn’t make herself accept the supernatural. But she was surprised that the first pastor didn’t believe the rest!
“It’s a complex issue,” said the pastor. He was not put off by her clothing or manner. He did, in fact, associate with people her age. Like her crowd at school, he thought she was a bit conservative.
“What’s complex about it? ‘You give them something to eat.'”
“Well, that’s the story, that’s the myth. It drives us. But when we are driven toward the right goal by the story, we discover that there is much more to it than that.”
“So Jesus was a bit simple minded? I mean in the story. You know I don’t believe in the miracle.”
“Simple minded? No! He was pointing the way.”
“But a way that doesn’t really work, right?”
“No, it can work, but it’s more complex. You wouldn’t understand these things yet. You’re young and idealistic. That’s good! Enjoy it while you can! But when you start working on these problems in more detail you’ll find it’s much more difficult than just saying ‘give them something to eat’. There are structural issues, the way that the entire system is biased in favor of the rich over the poor, the way food is produced and distributed. One person or one church cannot solve the problem. We need society-wide, even worldwide solutions for problems like this.” He could remember when he had felt much like the girl did, but thousands of disappointments along the way had polished off the rough edges. He much preferred “polished off the rough edges” to “made him cynical.”
“I see. The bottom line still seems to be that the story doesn’t work.”
After that the conversation dwindled, though they parted more amicably than she had with the first pastor.
The third pastor didn’t like the idea of feeding the hungry that much. Of course he gave it lip service. His congregation would provide food for the needy at Christmas. They had lunches to give out from time to time to homeless people, but the general idea of feeding the hungry, especially if one didn’t limit it properly, didn’t sound right. Besides, his task was to spread the gospel.
“You have to understand that this is a metaphor,” he told the girl.
“You mean you don’t believe it either,” she replied. He was surprised at her look of disappointment, and by the suggestion that she had asked others.
“Of course I believe it! Jesus performed miracles. Never doubt that!”
“Actually, I don’t believe in the miracle. I believe in the story. ‘You give them something to eat.’ That’s where it leads me every time I read it.”
“Well, yes, but the miracle is required to fulfil that command. How could the disciples have fed all those people?”
“So you also believe Jesus was screwing with their heads.”
“Jesus did not mess with people’s heads!” declared the pastor. He wasn’t going to use the word “screw” in connection with Jesus. Miriam just sat there with raised eyebrows.
“As I said, it’s a metaphor. Even the miracle is a metaphor. It really happened, but it’s pointing to something else. That bread represents God’s word that we give to the people. ‘You give them something to eat’ means that we’re supposed to give people the word of the gospel, the good news that Jesus died to save them from hell.”
Miriam looked at him for a few moments. “I really think you ought to read your Bible more,” she said. “I think you’d find out that Jesus screwed with lots of people’s heads!”
And she was up and out the door, waving and saying a friendly sound “bye!” as she stepped out the door.
The pastor shook his head. “Young people today!” he said to the empty room.
The fourth pastor called Miriam the whore of Babylon, but he didn’t count.
The fifth, sixth, and seventh wanted her to invite her parents to church. If she could only get her parents to attend, they would be glad to get her in touch with the right committee — well, the sixth pastor called it a team — who would be happy to work with her on a mission project, one suitable for the youth, of course.
The eighth pastor referred her to the youth director who invited her to youth sports night. “You could make some friends, and then maybe you could think of a project together. We might even be able to deliver lunches to some shut-ins.”
Miriam thought delivering lunches to shut-ins sounded like an excellent idea, but couldn’t figure out why she had to go to sports night and make more friends before she did it. She had lots of friends.
And that was her moment of epiphany. She had lots of friends. She made them easily. She wasn’t an obvious social leader, but lots of people listened to her, because they thought she often had good ideas. She knew how to have fun without getting into trouble. Not that she didn’t cross the line, but she seemed to know how to do it without getting caught or, if caught, getting into too much trouble.
So the next day as lunch hour was about over, she jumped up on a table at school and yelled, “Listen up, everyone!”
This started a chain of events with the staff, one of whom decided not to try to deal with this herself, and so called in the assistant principal.
Silence descended on the lunch room, which was, in itself, a miracle. This occurred to Miriam and she grinned before she started to speak.
“I’ve been reading my Bible, because it relates to literature class.”
Oh no, thought the one teacher in the room. She’s become a religious nut and she’s going to preach, and we’re all going to get into trouble.
“I came to this story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people. Now I know some of you believe and some of you don’t. As for me, I don’t really, not in the miracle. But the story is good. In the story Jesus cares about those people and he tells his disciples — that’s followers — ‘you give them something to eat.’ Now I’ve been talking to pastors around town, and it seems that they think this is all crap as well. The story, I mean. They believe in the miracle, but it’s just this thing that happened. I believe in the story.”
The assistant principal walked into the room. He was trying to decide what to do, but the nature of the speech shocked him.
“Now some people think it’s too hard. We can’t feed people. All the people. Everyone who needs it. But look around. We’re going to throw enough food away to feed a whole other school. This is a good neighborhood. Most of our parents have money. Those churches I visited, they have big buildings, lots of resources.
“But none of them believe. They don’t believe this can be done. Well, I believe it can. Just for our town. Maybe even for this county. We could have a whole county where nobody went hungry. And even if these other people are right and we can’t take care of everyone, we can make sure it’s a lot less. Less hungry people, I mean.
“Is anyone with me?”
The assistant principal just kept watching. On the one hand it was his duty to keep students from disrupting the school. Miriam was definitely out of line. Based on what he had heard and what the teacher had whispered to him, he wasn’t sure whether he was going to be accused of attacking religion or promoting it. On the other hand, he had been called out of a session with a couple of students who didn’t care about anything. Wasn’t this something good?
“My dad owns the grocery store down on 10th Avenue,” said one student.
“My mom works for …”
“My grandfather was talking just the other day about how hard it was to find a place where he could be sure his money would be spent well if he gave it …”
One of Miriam’s friends started taking notes.
The assistant principal wasn’t sure if he was witnessing a miracle, getting himself and the whole school into incredible trouble, or letting his authority seep through the cracks, never to return.
Suddenly Miriam looked at the clock. “Lunch hour’s over,” she said with another brilliant smile. Then she looked at the assistant principal. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll go to your office peacefully!”
You give them something to eat. — Matthew 14:16 (from Lectionary Proper 13A, Matthew 14:13-21)